New study may reignite debate on mammograms for younger women

A new study suggests that women younger than 40 should undergo regular mammograms


Katie McDonough
September 9, 2013 9:27PM (UTC)

A new study from researchers at Harvard Medical School suggests that, contrary to medical guidelines from the National Cancer Institute and other experts, young women should get mammograms before the age of 40.

As NBC News reports, researchers reviewed the medical records of 7,301 women diagnosed with breast cancer between 1990 and 1999. Of the 609 of these women who died of breast cancer before 2007, 65 percent had never had a mammogram, leading the team to conclude that earlier screenings could have potentially saved women's lives.

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“Most deaths from breast cancer occur in unscreened women. To maximize mortality reduction and life-years gained, initiation of regular screening before age 50 years should be encouraged,” wrote Dr. Daniel Kopans of Massachusetts General Hospital in the paper, which was published in the journal Cancer.

But experts at the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force say that earlier mammograms may do little to save lives, particularly because the majority of cancers that kill younger women are fast-growing and are often undetectable by a mammogram.

According to the NCI's website, “Even though mammograms can detect malignant tumors that cannot be felt, treating a small tumor does not always mean that the woman will not die from the cancer. A fast-growing or aggressive cancer may have already spread to other parts of the body before it is detected.”

The new findings could confuse women about the impact of earlier mammograms on certain types of cancers, as Dr. Laura Esserman, head of the breast cancer center at the University of California, San Francisco, told NBC: "My worry here is that people will assume from the article that if you find a cancer through screening, you’re going to save that person’s life."

"In fact, what they show is exactly the problem that we face. We know that younger women are more likely to develop the killer cancers," added Esserman. "Screening works best for more slow-growing cancers."

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Though medical guidelines vary, most experts agree that the decision about when to begin getting mammograms is one women should make in consultation with their personal doctors, as the Mayo Clinic notes:

At Mayo Clinic, doctors offer mammograms to women beginning at age 40 and continuing annually. When to begin mammogram screening and how often to repeat it is a personal decision.

Mayo Clinic recommends women and their doctors discuss the benefits, risks and limitations of mammograms and decide together what is best. Also consider your personal situation and preferences in making your decision.

Not all organizations agree on mammogram guidelines. For instance, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force mammogram guidelines recommend women begin screening at age 50 and repeat the test every two years. The American Cancer Society and other organizations recommend screening begin at 40 and continue annually.


Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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Breast Cancer Cancer Health Women's Health

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